Radical Spirit – 12 Ways to Live a Free & Authentic Life

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By Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister is an internationally known writer and lecturer. A Benedictine nun, there is no one on the planet who is better qualified or more capable of discerning and sharing the multiple meanings of the Rule of St. Benedict, a 6th-century book on living a God-centered life that countless people have followed.

Joan takes a chapter for each of the 12 ways in which we can work towards a humbler life. She takes each step and discusses it in depth. She does it in three parts. First Joan explores what the challenge of each step is by asking the question: “What is the challenge here?” The next question that we must ask is: “What is the underlying issue?” We must venture into what is truly deep within us that makes this step more difficult to follow. Finally, she asks the question of “What are the spiritual implications of this step of humility?” Here is where we get closer to God.

The book reads like a memoir. Sister Joan shares how she has progressed though the many steps herself, from entering the monastic order while she was young to the many steps she has wrestled with during her life.

Her Twelve Steps of Humility are what we and our society today are desperately in need of. What she shares is the Wisdom of the Ages, 15 centuries worth. We so much need an antidote to the narcissism, greed and selfishness that permeates so many lives today. The Twelve Steps of Humility are an invitation to freedom, as individuals and as a nation:

1. Recognize that God is God.
2. Know that God’s will is best for you.
3. Seek direction from wisdom figures.
4. Endure the pains of development and do not give up.
5. Acknowledge faults and strip away the masks.
6. Be content with less than the best.
7. Let go of a false sense of self.
8. Preserve tradition and learn from the community.
9. Listen.
10. Never ridicule anyone of anything.
11. Speak kindly.
12. Be serene, stay calm.

As we go through the Twelve Steps with Joan, we recognize what has mastered us in life. Then we discover what it will take to break those chains that bind us. We have all allowed things of non-importance to master our daily routines. Radical Spirit is a call for us to wake up and begin to change to be the people we really want to be and that God wants us to be. Here are some of the pearls of wisdom that I relish and think about from Sister Joan:

“Submission to the will of God, of course requires that I finally learn to relinquish my rabid devotion to self-will. The entire world, the whole universe, is the treasure house of the will of God, the mind of God for us all. It means that when I find myself liking my ideas and my plans better than others, struggling to impose them, cutting people off in conversation before they can even lay out all of their ideas, the caution light will go on in my heart. I will then begin to think again – only this time I will be thinking about everybody else’s ideas and answers, plans and visions, needs and hopes for life. Not simply my own.”

“All life is God’s will, not simply mine. All peoples are the image of God, not only my kind. All of us have something to say, and in listening to the insights of others, we each get closer to the mind of God. Contemplation of the will of God for us all is the spiritual work of a lifetime, the purpose of life.”

“Just because human beings so often dress themselves in the trappings of power does not give them power over either our consciences or our souls. Our obeisance rests always with our obligation to follow the One who has the ultimate right to say to us. ‘Listen. Pay attention to what I am telling you. Heed my will.’”

“The problem is that what is endured and won in one century must so often be won again in another. Just as the world thinks one struggle has been won, somewhere, somehow, it emerges all over again. We must be eternally vigilant about slavery, for instance, which is now sex slavery as well as economic slavery, a new threat of global and horrendous dimensions.”

Joan quotes Mary Lou Kownacki: “Who is it that we would not love, if we only knew their story? And on the other hand, who can we truly love if we do not embrace our own story?”

“In fact, how much of myself is real anymore? Hoarding things and hiding things in order to create a public image smothers life before it ever starts. When enough is never enough, happiness is always just out of reach and unrest is pervasive.

“The truth is that too much of anything erodes its essential power. Too much partying leads to a loss of concentration. Too much travel leads to exhaustion. Too much makeup distances us from the glow of the natural. Too much self-talk identifies us as narcissists. Too much posturing, too much affect, too much drama leaves us clown-like and alone on the stage of life. There’s no one to talk to because few are really sure enough who this person is to risk the interaction.”

“I met a woman in an elevator one day who was shocked – and upset – that I was a sister who did not wear the medieval habit. How could she tell that I was a sister? She demanded to know. ‘Easy,’ I said. ‘Just get all the rest of the women in your parish to wear their wedding dresses. Then, when you see someone in church who is not wearing a wedding dress, it’ll probably be a sister.’ It takes time for a community to redefine itself after great change, but the fresh air of new life is worth it.”

“The silence of the heart, that deep-down awareness of what we’re thinking and why, is our monk’s cell. It’s in that place of total honesty where we come to realize who we ourselves really are. We learn there what we fear and what we are resisting. We hear there the voices we so commonly block out with noise that seduces us to give in to ourselves. It’s in silence that we hear the sounds of our better angels calling us to rise above our lesser selves. It’s in silence that we arm-wrestle our picayune selves to the ground of truth.”


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